Ambitious construction and repair plans by the National Roads Authority will easily consume its $10 million annual budget – providing neither the weather nor highway damage intervene.
Despite ongoing economic and financial constraints, the agency said it hopes for an additional $5 million annual infusion “to build additional capacity on the road network,” according to its 2015-2020 Corporate Strategic Plan,
The NRA was founded in July 2004 under the National Roads Authority Law “to administer, manage, control, develop and maintain the islands’ public roads and related facilities,” which also includes lighting, signals, storm-water facilities and signage, the report says.
Before 2004, however, NRA Transportation Planner Marion Pandohie says, “It’s first challenge was building roads between five districts using the muscle power of men and mules to meet the demand of some of the first-ever automobiles.”
Grand Cayman’s single inter-district roadway was even then called Shamrock Road, she says, and it was mainly a coastal road in the Bodden Town area. It was developed through the widening of what were essentially donkey trails near the coastline.
“Government took land from owners to create roads wide enough to facilitate two-way vehicular-traffic movements,” she says. “It is important to note that vehicular traffic on the island prior to the early 1980s was extremely low, and Caymanians tended to stay more confined to their districts.”
Most of Cayman’s roads were – and still are – built not by government, but by private developers, at least within the districts, Pandohie says.
“In recent years the standards [to] which developers have to build these roads has increased through the NRA inspection of both the base and the hot mix.”
The result has been that developers own many the roads in Grand Cayman, meaning that “the NRA in a lot of cases does not maintain these roads or the infrastructure on them, such as lighting, drainage, etc.,” she says.
A growing population in 1988 sparked development of a Master Ground Transportation Plan, a corridor study of short- and long-term road-building needs, but the costs, social impact and more-pressing issues of drugs and crime derailed the project.
A sort of “buyer’s remorse” set in, however, in the early 2000s as planners recognized the master plan would have enabled at least some developmental guidelines – and government leaders acknowledged the need for a system of trunk roads for economic growth.
The result was the NRA, charged with creating a long-term plan, followed by Cabinet’s 2005 “corridor plan.”
Government annually allocates the NRA’s $10 million budget from its road fund, the Corporate Strategic Plan notes. Expansion and reconstruction are separately funded by government’s $5 million capital works program or – like the Butterfield roundabout-Camana Bay expansion of the Esterley Tibbetts Highway – through a public-private partnership.
The 52-page report discusses the evolution of the NRA and plans through 2020 for road-building and repair, costs and investment in equipment and personnel.
Public pressure on the agency is constant, spurred by rising GDP, per capita incomes and expectations for comfort and convenience: “Citizens desire connections to more places, to get there faster and to get there in more comfort,” the authors say.
Recognizing Cayman’s 76-square-mile land mass, the NRA “cannot infinitely add to the road network,” they write, forcing planners to seek “the best use of all transport modes,” including regulation of vehicles.
While specific regulations are not detailed, the report suggests expansion of the NRA to become “a land transport management agency” looking after all public and private transportation.
The recommendation is consistent with the planning axiom that you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion. As vehicles clog roads, commuters turn to alternative transport, buses and trains in most cities, leaving their vehicles at home.
New roads release what is called “suppressed demand,” as owners resume old habits, returning to their private vehicles.
Resolving traffic congestion requires management measures such as restricted car ownership, controlled use of vehicles and even electronic road pricing schemes – billing drivers according to the hours and location of road use. Local suggestions have often relied on duty waivers for smaller, quieter electric vehicles.
“Serious social decisions will have to be made by government in future years,” Pandohie says, such as restrictions on vehicle importations; vehicle-size limitations; promotion of more scooters, motorbikes.
Bermuda “is already experiencing these realities,” she says.
In mid-July, Minister of Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure Joey Hew appeared expressed support for the NRA recommendations, telling a gathering, “We can only build so many roads. At some point we are going to run out of space.”
Better public transport and ride-sharing programs, he said, would rapidly become critical. “At the end of the day, we are going to have to focus on implementing a proper public-transport system and encouraging people to use greener, smaller vehicles as well as car sharing … in order to reduce the size, speed and amount of vehicles on our roads.”
Pandohie recommends “promotion of accessibility and mobility options by providing integration and connectivity; preservation of existing facilities and promotion of an efficient management system and operations by encouraging land-development patterns that promote transportation efficiency (e.g. encourage land-use patterns that promote safe and convenient walking, bicycling and transit); establishment and preservation of rights of way to support and promote future expansion for not only roads, but transit, bicycle and pedestrian use.”
Grand Cayman has 313 miles of road, supporting more than 36,000 registered vehicles. More than one-third of the street network, 36 percent, is in George Town, 27 percent in Bodden Town, 20 percent in West Bay, 9 percent in East End and 8 percent in North Side.
The agency pegs average “pavement condition index,” a measure of road-surface health, at 74, out of a target rating of 80, crediting East End with a top score of 78.
“This means, with the exception of East End, [the] majority of the roadwork will require maintenance intervention over the next 1–5 years,” the report says, adding that most roadwork in the last decade has been in George Town.
Every quarter, the authority uses that index to propose “work packages,” involving maintenance or other strategic priorities.
The packages are financed from the $10 million Road Fund, itself derived from 100 percent of the duties paid on imported fuel, 100 percent of duties on vehicle licensing and 100 percent of fees paid to government’s infrastructure fund.
Still, worries persist. For example, the report says, in mid-2015, 71 percent of the NRA’s 297 assets – valued at $5.8 million – had “exceeded their estimated useful life.” Further, “based on the usage of the property, plant and equipment,” the agency “should have an asset replacement fund of … $4.4 million,” but counted only $4.1 million “total cash balance from all sources.”
The report pegs plant and equipment at 65 percent of the authority’s $5.8 million asset value, followed by 27 percent in vehicles, 4 percent in leasehold improvements and another 2 percent each in computers, furniture and hardware.
Other concerns focus on three high-risk areas: asphalt costs, local availability of aggregate and other materials, and ongoing concerns with funding.
Asphalt costs depended on a local monopoly, global oil prices and growing costs of doing business.
Aggregate supplies could be compromised by poor quality material available locally and the “inability of the supplier to produce asphalt.”
“Reduced quarrying activity on Grand Cayman leads to greater reliance on imports,” the report concludes, adding the NRA has no alternative if the asphalt supplier’s machinery breaks down.
Finally, the authors fear Cayman’s road network will not significantly increase without more money.
As the national road network expands and the NRA faces increased unscheduled maintenance demands, the report says, “current funding is inadequate to meet maintenance needs, [and] there are no commitments for additional funding.”
On March 21, a solution for aggregate may have appeared in the form of “tire-derived aggregate,” produced at the George Town landfill under a Department of Environmental Health contract.
Six trucks will spend the next year feeding half-a-million discarded tires into a shredder, reducing each steel-belted radial to two-inch rubber chips, ideal as all-purpose fill for construction, drainage works, road-building, erosion control and landfill cover.
Local home builder Davenport Development and planners at Frank Sound’s mixed-use Ironwood community will take this aggregate for their projects, and DEH has already named the NRA a prime candidate for the material.
The authority will have plenty of opportunity to test the aggregate, Dozens of projects fill the authority’s six-page schedule through 2020, the highest-profile of which is the 1.6-mile, $6.5 million Esterley Tibbetts Highway expansion between Lawrence Boulevard and the Butterfield roundabout, scheduled for completion in 2018.
Other jobs include a possible 2017-2018 $900,000, 0.23-mile connector road linking West Bay’s Willie Farrington Drive to Reverend Blackman Road; and a simultaneous $700,000, 0.41-mile reconstruction of the intersection with Reverend Blackman Road.
Still on the schedule is the $34 million, two-mile airport connector road from the new roundabout near Camana Bay on the rebuilt Esterley Tibbetts Highway.
In George Town, for 2017 and 2018, planners are looking at a $1 million, quarter-mile link between Elgin Avenue and Eastern Avenue, and another $1.3 million, 0.3-mile connector between Eastern Avenue and Mary Street.
The long-delayed 0.3-mile, $2.4 million widening to four lanes of Bobby Thompson Way, including the roundabout at Linford Pierson Highway, may start this year, while the $6.4 million, 1.5-mile widening – also to four lanes and with a new roundabout – of the highway is scheduled for completion this year.
A $1.7 million, 0.9-mile reconstruction of Shedden Road from the Mango Tree to Elizabethan Square is scheduled for 2020/2021.
Finally, in a move likely to please Minister Hew, transport planners and environmentalists, the NRA this year will launch an island-wide program to build bicycle lanes, although no details – or costs – are listed.
Pandohie says Cayman’s road network is indispensable to its prosperity and economic development at large. While difficult to quantify precisely, “transportation benefits to the economy are widespread,” she says.
“Cost benefits are most often measured in travel-time savings dollars. In simple terms engineers place an average dollar value on the average number of persons per vehicle that are stuck in traffic. In the U.S different states estimate that hourly dollar figure to be between $10-$15 per hour per person stuck in traffic.
“Efficient roads in general contribute to the economy through … greater access and mobility; decreased travel time to and from destinations; and enhancement of the movement of people for work-home trips; leisure trips; tourist and tourism-related travel throughout the island,” she says.
Roads also enable essential emergency services as ambulance, fire and police; industrial spin-offs such as cargo and service workers in construction and other trades; and basic public benefits as garbage collection, school buses, etc.
“It’s hard to measure in real dollars,” Pandohie says, the boost to business development, creation of housing and neighborhoods and ever-growing demand for more vehicles and, in turn, more roads.
“That’s why growth (land use) and road development must be planned and managed,” she says, “especially in a closed system like Cayman with limited space. A long-range transportation plan is essential, one which is not just focused on building highways, but providing interconnectivity between neighborhoods; street hierarchy with traffic, weight and speed limits; [and] roads designed not just for cars, but buses, cyclists and pedestrians.”
In a preface to the Corporate Strategic Plan, the authors write that “a lasting solution that makes the best use of all transport modes is important for the long-term health and prosperity of our economy.
“This may require a broader discussion on a land transport management agency with overall responsibility for the regulation of all public and private vehicles on the transportation network.
“In the short to medium term, as the road network expands and the cost of raw-material input increases, it will be become necessary to review the funding model of the NRA to ensure that the country’s road standards are maintained.”